They Called me Barbie
They Called Me Barbie
by Michael Benton
You really can’t tell someone what life is like on a submarine. It’s one of those things you have to experience for yourself. I mean, you can understand the words for sure; just it misses something in the telling. Still, there are stories to share that, at the very least, should give a smile. I guess the best place to start is at the beginning.
I joined the Navy way back when Jimmy Carter was still the President. It was November 26th when I jumped on a plane heading for Great Lakes, Illinois. We arrived there around 11:00PM so my first meals in the Navy where the next day, Thanksgiving Day. It is enough to say, that meal was nothing like the one I was sure momma made back home, but they did try. Later in my career in the Navy, I would have paid real money for a meal like that but those were lessons yet to learn, on that day, the only lesson was my life had taken a drastic change.
I would not dare compare the Navy’s boot camp to the downright toughness of the Marines, but as far as the Navy goes, Great Lakes was as tough as it got. Not only the nature of it was harsh, but also I am a Southern boy and Great Lakes, Illinois, is no place for the faint of heart in wintertime. I am sure some smarty out there is just itching to point out that winter does not start until the end of December. True as that is for the rest of the world, God starts it much earlier in Great Lakes! I think the Navy put in a special request chit for that so our enjoyment of the nice, cool breeze off the lake would be all the more refreshing.
Back then, most guys that joined the Navy only had a general idea of what they would be doing, for me it was a given from the start. I have always loved the field of navigation and refused to talk to them unless they let me do that, a job they called “Quartermaster.” Now, no one gets a guarantee from the Navy unless they give something in return, for me, that give was to volunteer for the United States Submarine Service. Only then would I be allowed to navigate, so volunteer I did. As it turns out, that decision had a greater positive impact on my life than any other.
As others struggled in boot camp to figure out what they wanted to try for, I knew what was ahead for me. After Great Lakes, I was off to New London, Connecticut, for Basic Enlisted Submarine School or BESS as it was commonly called. Then, it was Orlando, Florida, to start Quartermaster “A” school. I toed the line well through boot camp and BESS; nothing was going to stand in the way of my getting to “A” school. That’s one of the funny things about the Navy; many a young man join because they are tired of school and want to do something else before going to college. As soon as they do join, they end up in a year or two of school. And let me promise you, they know how to give you an education! On that score, the Navy does not play around. A Navy school can best be described as long, hard, and demanding. By the time I was finished, I was ready to go to sea, or so I thought.
I was assigned to the USS Birmingham (SSN-695) out of Norfolk, Virginia. It was one of the few Los Angeles Class Submarines built at that time. It was a type of sub called a Fast Attack and I was happy. She was one of the newer boats in the fleet. When I arrived in Norfolk, I discovered the Birmingham was out at sea and would not be back for several weeks. In that time, I met the members of the crew who did not make the run, along with the other new crewmembers waiting to report.
A new guy on his first submarine is looked on as a necessary waste of food and water by the more seasoned crew. They cannot do anything and only get in the way. I soon learned this fact meeting a crewmember topside who came up to take us aboard. “Where’s the nubs?” he demanded of the topside watch who just pointed at us. I would soom learn that "nubs" was short for "non useful body." He was Hap Clark, a Machinist Mate 2nd class or MM2(SS). The “SS” after his rate meant he was qualified in submarines; new guys, like us at the time, had an “SU” after our rates. A Master Chief told me “SU means stupid and useless.” Who was I to argue the point.
As we followed Hap, he told us to call him Hap, he greeted all the men he passed and introduced us as “the new batch of air-breathing, food-eating nubs.” We met Rat, Woody, Benny, Scooter, Cam, it seemed everyone had a nickname, most everyone that is. We’d pass a few guys and Hap would say, “That’s Smith, he’s no good (I made Smith up, no point in putting the finger on them now). It became obvious to us that when you got a nickname, you knew you had made it in with these guys.
I reported onboard with another new guy from West Virginia, Tim Pearce. He was a Machinist Mate too, like Hap. As it turns out, Tim and I often studies together that first year. See, everyone has to “qualify” on his submarine. When it is your first one, it takes about a year to learn all the systems and components. I mean you have to learn everything, where it gets its power, how it operates, how to turn it off (they are big on knowing how to turn things off), and you have to know it from memory. One day, Tim and I were walking aft to engineering and passed Hap along the way. “How’s it going HD, you keeping Benton straight?” he asked. Tim had a nickname! Of course, Tim had red hair and freckles, so it was only natural for him to get HD. That was short for Howdy Doody.
I had mixed emotions at this, I mean I was happy that Tim was fitting in but I began to wonder what it would take for me to get a nickname. Some of the guys had really horrible ones. You can imagine how rank a bunch of guys can get isolated at sea for a length of time. Still, things were going well for me and I was well on my way to being qualified and earning my dolphins. Dolphins are the uniform pin awarded when you qualify in submarines. Regardless of my lack in the nickname department, I was fitting in. I had learned to stand watch and at least earn my keep aboard. I might not have been an expert on submarines at that point, but I was in navigation and being the guy that knows where you are and how to get you home goes a long way aboard ship.
After about six months, I learned that Hap gave out a majority of the nicknames aboard. He had a knack for it. I asked him one day if I had one in the offing, he simply told me they come when they come. I would just have to wait. We had been out to sea a few times by this point and I was comfortable being there. I did fit in and it felt good. Still, a little part of me wanted that nickname. When it did come, it took like wildfire!
In port one morning, about 3:00AM, Hap woke me up to go stand topside watch. He was the “belowdecks” watch and part of his job was to make sure people were up. “Barbie,” he said as he shook my shoulder. “Barbie, it’s time to get up for watch.” I was still half-asleep as I dressed. I walked to the mess decks to grab a cup of coffee to take with me topside and saw Hap sitting there with a few others that were up. Then is hit me - “What the Sam Hill did you call me?” I demanded.
“Barbie,” he replied with a smile that reminded me of a jackass eating briers, and everyone burst out laughing.
“Why Barbie,” I further demanded to know while shaking my head in disbelief. I knew regardless of his response, I had my nickname. It was just too good not to stick. He pointed out that one of Playboy Magazine owner Hugh Heffner’s girlfriends had been Barbie Benton. From that moment on, it did not matter, because we shared a last name, I was now stuck with her first name too, at least as a nickname.
Everyone called me “Barbie.” Guys that reported after that never even knew it was not my name. At first, it bothered me and when someone would call me that, all I could think about was that song by Johnny Cash, A Boy Named Sue. A visiting Admiral even told the Captain “that Petty Officer Barbie does a wonderful job.” Soon I began to accept it for what it was, a nickname given in fun. It was the crew’s way of telling me I had indeed fit in at last.